Monday, February 22, 2010

Whisky Live springs a surprise

Update 22.2.2010: Nicholas Coldicott, writer for the Japan Times and general Japanese drinks supremo, attended the event and was kind enough to share a few of his notes: "The real surprise for a lot of people was the trio of awards for Ichiro's Malt, and for those that tried it, the "newborn" whisky from the new Chichibu distillery, which is astoundingly mature tasting for something so young. When Ichiro's won the best single malt over 21 years category, Big Sight looked like it might topple over as the whole crowd surged to their booth for samples." On his Twitter feed, he also noted that he had tried the 25 yr old Yamazaki and Hakushu at Whisky Live: "Yamazaki is nice, Hakushu is absolutely sensational."


Konishiki at Whisky Live

Konishiki! If I had known Konishiki was going to be there, I would have bunked off work. For those for whom that name does not evoke nostalgia for a better time when sumo was not being spoiled by bullying Mongolian interlopers, but instead by monstrous Hawaiian interlopers: Konishiki was a legendary sumo wrestler in the late 1980s and early 1990s.


Konishiki (right) wrestling

Konishiki was the archetypal big fat sumo wrestler. Indeed, if you have seen a picture of a big fat sumo wrestler, there is a very good chance it was him. He was the heaviest sumo rikishi in history at a fighting weight near the end of his career of over 280 kg. But the Hawaiian was not just big, he was also a very good wrestler: the first foreign wrestler to reach the elite rank of ozeki. There was a lot of controversy at the time that he wasn't made yokozuna, the highest honour, but that is an argument for another day. He has been the most successful of the foreign rikishi in establishing himself in Japan post-retirement. He is a television personality, with regular gigs on NHK children's TV as well as numerous TV ads and records to his name.

Anyway, Konishiki was at Whisky Live Tokyo at Odaiba on Sunday! Appropriate really: there are few better ways to drink whisky in Japan than over late night re-runs of the day's sumo bouts. As I said previously, work commitments meant I could not attend this year's event. I am kicking myself. I hope to get a report from the organisers on how things went and I am still pleading for any reports readers can send in (japanesewhisky gmail). Nonjatta reader John has been nice enough to send his impressions:

"I am new to the world of whisky but I had a great time at the Whisky Live 2010 Tokyo event. I joined the following seminars: Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki. Although, there was some overlap (Suntory Family). it was informative and worth the money.

Was unable to see the Punk piper show, but did see the cocktail: a "KonyD" named after the "Big" Special guest Koninshiki. The D stands for grated daikon, with whiskey and creme/milk. A little exotic, but was popular with a few female guests. My only regret - Why is this held on a Sunday?

You can see some of the slides and pics from the event at http://whiskeylive2010tokyo.shutterfly.com/"

The photo at the top is from the shutterfly slideshow. The Konishiki wrestling image is a still from NHK coverage.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Dating Suntory Old bottles


A 1950 Suntory Old

I have a feeling this post is going to disappoint some people. I get a lot of questions emailed to me and posted as comments here about the age and value of Suntory Old bottles. There are Japanese whiskies with older traditions, but I think the emphasis on age on this whisky's label raises hopes.

The first thing to clear up is that, although some bottles of Suntory Old have the date 1899 printed on them, none are that old. Suntory dates itself to 1899 but all bottles of Suntory Old date from 1950 onwards.

There are several generations of Old, reaching right up to the present day. Despite its name, it is not a particularly long matured whisky. It is a mid market blend (below Hibiki in Suntory's blended whisky pecking order but above Kakubin and the bargain basement Torys.) There are various ways to tell younger bottles from older version. Early bottles had the slogan: "A Blend of Ancient Whiskies". That was still on the bottle until at least 1868. Even after Kotobukiya changed its name to "Suntory" in 1963, the Suntory Old bottles appear to have continued to bear the "Kotobukiya" name. One way to tell really old Olds from 1960s versions is the addition of technical information at the far left bottom and far right bottom of the main label.

I am not sure when exactly things changed but, by 1994, " the label was different. The "Ancient Whiskies" were dropped in favour of "A Blend of the Choice Whiskies" and the main title on the whisky changed from "Suntory Whisky" to "Suntory Old Whisky". The line "Mild and Smooth" had also been added to the label by 1994 and the neck label had a completely different design. In 2006, there was another redesign, as you can see below:

1950:


1968:


1994:


2006:


The "Extra Special" bottle:



This bottle is owned by a reader of Nonjatta in Brazil and I must admit it has got me scratching my head. I have called it "Extra Special" because those words appear in the middle of the label and I have not seen them on other versions of Suntory Old. The owner says his family were given it by a Japanese diplomat in the 1980s. I have had questions from other readers about this particular bottling. Unfortunately, I have not been able to pin it down to a very precise time period.

I do know that a bottle similar to this was marketed abroad by Suntory and there does appear to have been a "Discover Suntory" campaign in the U.S. in the late 1960s that featured this brand. I say this because of this magazine advert:



It features our "Extra Special" bottle. This photo appears to be from the same campaign and its owner told me that his 1967 dating is based on a clear July 2, 1967 date on his slide mount (I have also dated the TWA campaign in the same picture to the same period). I think I can tentatively conclude from this that the "Extra Special" version of Suntory Old was sold abroad around 1967. It is almost definitely post 1963, because it is not described as being made by Kotobukiya, which was Suntory's company name before that date. The "Kotobukiya" name is echoed on the label, however: the kanji in the middle is "kotobuki", which has meanings associated with congratulations, happiness and long life (the same kanji is featured on a lot of neck labels for Suntory Old).

We have a fairly firm start date for this type of Suntory Old in the mid-1960s and some evidence from the marketing that it might have been exported in quite large amounts (perhaps even specifically made for foreign markets). What I don't know is when it stopped being distributed. The fact that the owner of this bottle thought it was given in the 1980s raises the possibility that it was produced over quite a long period.

There is one more detail that I should point out on this bottle which may or may not date it later than 1967. On the reverse of the bottle there is raised lettering on the bottle which says "A blend of the choice whiskies". If you look higher up in this post you will see that that phrase is featured on a mainstream bottle of Suntory Old in 1994 but not on its equivalent in 1968. I don't know when exactly Suntory started using that phrase, instead of referring to "ancient" whiskies as it had done earlier, but it may indicate that this is a later bottling. There may have been early "Extra special" bottling with the ancient description but I have never seen one. Another explanation might be that the change from "ancient" to "choice" may have been initiated on the "Extra Special" bottles and later carried over onto other versions. Here is the raised lettering:



Update 30.7.2010: My goodness, this post is getting really dorky but I just want to note that the strap line on these Suntory Old does appear to have varied considerably over the years. Another variation is below. It is another "Extra Special" Suntory Old but I think it would be a mistake to think that the "blend of rare selected malt whiskies" means this was a vatted malt. I think Old has always been a blend and that what that strapline means is that it is a "blend involving rare selected malt whiskies". Thanks to Tim from The Whisky Exchange for the photo, who said it came from a collection in Spain with a lot of bottles from the 60s and 70s.



Update 9.1.2010: Another reader has sent in some photos of an old bottle, which I am guessing comes from before or around the same time as the 1968 bottle at the top of this post. It carries the "Extra Special" mark and "kotobuki" characters. My current theory is that these marks were associated with bottles for export, and this one was exported into the U.S., as the photos below show. The use of "Kotobukiya Ltd." instead of "Suntory Whisky" might be taken to imply that this was exported prior to 1963, when the company changed its name. However, the photos at the top of this post show a bottle dated by Suntory as being distributed in 1968 also using the Kotobukiya name. My guess is that this is a bottle from the 60s or, possibly, earlier. As the reader who sent in these images points out, the back of the bottle is subtly different from the Suntory Old I posted about above: "On the back, where the bottle you posted has the company symbol, we have the same Japanese symbol as the front label."





Friday, February 12, 2010

Not much life on Mars


The warehouse at Shinshu

Update 14.7.2010: Kawaida san at Hombo's head office has just confirmed to me that the company is refurbishing its stills and planned to start distillation again in 2011.

Katatomo-san has an elegiac post about the Mars Whisky distillery at Shinshu. He visited in January and found that one of the two pot stills could not be used because the copper had in places got too thin and posed a safety hazard. I am not sure which of the two stills it was or of the condition of the other still but my understanding is that whisky distilling is a thing of the past. A stock of matured whisky is still being sold but is, of course, declining. Katatomo-san was told that the grain whisky used in Mars blended whiskies was imported.
The photograph and all the information in this post are taken from resort.usukeba.com.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Kirin and Suntory will not merge



Suntory and Kirin have called off their merger talks.

The sticking point appears to have been the controlling stake that the family that owns Suntory would have had in the new structure. The merger was attempting to bring together a publicly listed company (Kirin) and a relatively small but almost completely family-owned private company (Suntory). The Suntory family would have ended up with a controlling holding of about a third of shares in the new entity. This was evidently too much for Kirin's existing management and owners. (Update: Wall Street Journal has a quote from a Kirin spokesperson: "We not only disagreed on the merger ratio. We could not reach an accord because of various other factors, and decided that we cannot see the new entity maintaining independence and transparency as a public company.")

As I say, the news is good for whisky lovers. The merger would have joined Kirin's relatively weak whisky operation (Fuji-Gotemba and Karuizawa) and Suntory's very strong distilleries (Yamazaki and Hakushu) in a stagnant/declining market. Some sort of rationalisation would probably have been on the cards.

From a whisky perspective (only a sideshow in this deal), the main point of interest moving forward is whether Kirin is going to get itself a cogent whisky strategy. As it is, they seem to be sidelining their strongest single malt brand (Karuizawa) and yet not really pushing anything convincing out of their mass market whisky facility at Fuji-Gotemba (which is understandable, because the challenge of getting themselves ahead of Suntory and Nikka's domestic whisky brands is going to be extremely difficult.)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Ichiro Akuto and Marcin Miller in Paris


Akuto-san speaking in Tokyo last year

Update: For latest details on Marcin and Akuto's European appearances, see Marcin's Twitter feed.

Ichiro Akuto, Japan's leading independent whisky distiller, and his European distributor Marcin Miller will be sharing their drinks and their thoughts in Paris next week.

Akuto, the man behind the respected "Ichiro's Malt" single malts and the new Chichibu distillery in Saitama, and Miller, of the Number One Drinks Company, will talk at a sell-out dinner at Hanawa, a top Japanese restaurant just off the Champs Elysee, on Wednesday, February 9.

The event is being organised by (who else?) La Maison du Whisky, who are the French distributors of Akuto's whisky (and orchestrators of pretty much all of this amazing Japanese whisky scene that is developing in Paris right now). Five premium whiskies will accompany food, so the lucky ticket holders will get their 60 Euros worth. I must admit that I had hoped to get this news out before all the tickets were sold (60 Euros a piece) but it seems interest in Japanese whisky in the French capital has reached such a boil that one must be several months in advance with the news to give readers any chance of nabbing a seat. "Ganbarimasu," as they say in these parts ("I'll try my best"). Anyone interested in getting fuller details of Akuto and Ichiro's Paris tour (I think they will also be dropping their heads into a few shops) can drop a line to n.sikorski at whisky.fr.